University of Pretoria: Limit children’s exposure to microplastics as a precaution, says UP researcher

Until we know more about the risks, we should try to limit our exposure to microplastics found in products and in the environment, and the toxic chemicals associated with them. This is according to Professor Halina Röllin of UP’s School of Health Systems and Public Health, who was part of a team of researchers who gathered the most up-to-date research on the effects of nano- and microplastics (NMPs) and their toxic chemicals.

Scientists are yet to understand how microplastics get into our bodies and what the risks to human health are, but what they are fairly certain about is that unborn babies could become exposed in the womb. “While babies may be exposed to NMPs before, during and after birth and in childhood, no research is yet available to clarify exactly how they affect their development,” Prof Röllin says. “Some of the research we looked at found NMPs in placenta, breast milk and in the stool of babies, even at that early stage of a child’s development.”

The studies showed that the high levels of plastic particles found in baby stool matched or even surpassed that of adults who had been exposed to plastic pollution their entire lives. “This suggests that infants are exposed to higher levels of NMPs than adults,” Prof Röllin says.

Tiny plastic particles permeate our environment­, from the air we breathe outdoors to the dust we live with inside our homes. These particles are also in plastic toys and plastic food packaging. Prof Röllin says that it is almost impossible to avoid exposure as plastic particles have been recently found in human blood, which makes the lack of research into how these substances affect us even more concerning.

Prof Röllin and her colleagues found that scientists still don’t know how these microplastics make their way into the placenta and breast milk, but they suspect that it might be from the mother’s hygiene and cosmetic products, diet (like seafood) or simply the air she breathes.

The troubling conclusion they drew after reviewing 37 research papers, is that while levels of exposure to NMPs and the toxic chemicals they carry are well documented, the health effects are not. This uncertainty compels researchers to speculate on the possible health risks to children based on other known effects of these particles.

For example, a 1985 paper investigated spontaneous abortions among women working in the plastics industry, and a 2019 book found that plastic fibres in the air were harmful to factory workers. While researchers can’t say that the effects noticed in adults also occur in children, Prof Röllin says that policymakers should limit children’s exposure as a precaution.

One study in mice showed that polyethylene microplastics may alter the immune system and affect reproduction, while another found that pregnant mice that were exposed to polyethylene microplastics gave birth to overweight offspring. “Such alarming animal studies signal an urgent need for researchers to look more closely at how microplastics affect children,” Prof Röllin says.

Parents and caregivers can minimise exposure to microplastics by doing the following:

Avoid food products that have plastic packaging, or other plastic products for children.
Use glass milk bottles instead of plastic baby bottles to feed babies.
Avoid plastic toys and objects, especially for young babies and children who put these objects in their mouth; instead, encourage them to play with objects that are made of natural materials like wood.
Wet-clean the house regularly to prevent a build-up of dust, which may contain plastic particles.
While parents and caregivers can take steps to reduce a family’s exposure to microplastics and their toxic chemicals, researchers say it is ultimately up to policymakers and researchers to compel industry to reduce microplastic pollution.